The Art of Education
It’s about halfway through the school year, and things appear to be humming along nicely at A. A. Dixon School of Arts and Sciences in Pensacola.
“It’s amazing and interesting and ‘Oh, my gosh’ all at the same time,” said Dr. Donna Curry, the school’s executive director.
Curry’s voice is full of excitement and hope, much like the school’s guiding philosophy itself, which emphasizes how each student is “beautiful and unique” and incorporates an arts-centered approach to not only educate children but also to serve as a community hub.
A. A. Dixon is a private school serving students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The school focuses on at-risk students and features an impressive slate of arts programs, as well as STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) centric curriculum.
“We’re the best-kept secret in Pensacola,” Curry laughed, noting how that is quickly changing as the school continues to lay down a track record. “People are asking what we’re doing and how.”
Last year, A.A. Dixon’s growth potential was evident as its former property reached its capacity limitations.
“We could not grow. It did not allow the real estate for us to grow,” Curry said.
“We were really kind of bursting at the seams,” agreed Julian MacQueen, founder of Innisfree Hotels.
Innisfree is a primary benefactor of the Dixon school. Most recently, the organization ponied up $1.25 million towards refurbishing a new property for the school so that it could grow.
“We doubled our enrollment overnight, from one year to the next,” MacQueen said.
In its new locale at 1201 N. H Street, home of the original A.A. Dixon public, the school now serves nearly 300 students. MacQueen expects that number to also climb to capacity.
“I think we’re going to end up with a waiting list for that school,” he said.
This wouldn’t be entirely surprising. The school is experiencing notable success with students that might well have fallen through the cracks of Escambia County’s public education system.
Last year, for example, the school’s entire eighth-grade class could read at the appropriate level. That’s kind of a big deal.
“They all graduated on grade level,” Curry said. “That’s not easy to do.”
A School’s More Than a School
As Curry and her staff prepared for moving A.A. Dixon to its new location, they did so with a sense of mission. They understood that the school’s new haunt offered a unique opportunity for the surrounding neighborhoods.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to reach the community,” Curry said.
By reestablishing a school in an area that had been left wanting for one, Dixon would be more than a school serving students but also a hub serving those students’ parents and families and the broader community. It could serve to educate, energize and inspire.
“We have a belief that schools are an integral part of the neighborhood,” MacQueen said, describing how the absence of such a hub presents a hurdle for a community. “You’re really handicapping that neighborhood because there’s nothing to rally around.”
With this in mind, Curry and her staff made the rounds in their new neighborhood this summer, inviting local students and their families on a shared journey.
“We knocked on some doors in Morris and Attucks courts and said, ‘We’re here, and we’d like to see you in school,’” she recalled, adding that the response has been encouraging. “To sit in a community that wants a community school—they just come.”
These are precisely the types of students for which A.A. Dixon is designed. They are students that face economic obstacles and ones that too-often have difficulty getting their footing in the public system.
“These are kids that have, in many ways, been rejected by the system, and the system is not reacting to their needs,” MacQueen said.
Many of the students at Dixon came to the school needing to catch up. They lagged a year behind in basics like reading or math—“or, sometimes, two years behind,” Curry noted—and needed something more than they were being afforded in the public system. They needed specialized attention, maybe a different approach altogether.
“We also have to have a lot of things in place to get them up to speed,” Curry said, explaining that the school employs reading and math specialists specifically to work with these students.
Dixon’s emphasis on the arts also has a lot to do with engaging students. With offerings like dance, sewing, yoga, a drum program or piano lab, not to mention visiting artists, students are presented with a learning environment they want to immerse themselves in.
“We call it turning on the light,” Curry said. “We are exposing them to as many things as possible, which makes them want to come to school.”
A.A. Dixon is a stepupforstudents.org school. Students must apply through the organization, with admission based on financial need. The school receives $7,000 for each student admitted.
“We use the majority of it to hire the best teachers on the planet,” Curry said.
But Dixon also receives a good bit of charitable love from Innisfree and others. For example, much of the recent renovations at the new location were done via in-kind donations of services by a collection of businesses and professionals.
“We think that the business community has a role in making these types of changes,” MacQueen said, explaining how he feels the local education landscape can benefit from private partnerships.
MacQueen credits his wife, Kim—an English-trained Montessori teacher—as the driving force behind Innisfree’s partnership with A.A. Dixon. The couple is hoping their involvement not only improves the community’s academic offerings but also leads to its students being able to reach higher than they might have been able to otherwise.
“The circle of poverty has to be stopped, and this is the place you put your stake in the ground,” MacQueen said.
Since A.A. Dixon moved into its new location, MacQueen has been reminded on multiple occasions exactly why Innisfree is plugged into the school. Parents seek him out to let him know the impact the school is having, academic and otherwise.
“Coming up to us and shaking our hands and saying thank you so much,” he said. “Several people came up to us with tears in their eyes, saying, ‘We never thought we’d be able to walk our child to school.’”
Such expressions of gratitude are important. They’re validation that the school is having its intended impact. And MacQueen is just as pleased by this as the students and their families because he understands something that a lot of people have yet to grasp—these are his children. These are the community’s and world’s children that are starting to thrive.
“Once we realize there’s no ‘us’ and ‘them’ and look at this in a holistic way,” MacQueen said, “these are ‘our’ kids, not ‘their’ kids.”